Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier have been the Devils best two players across multiple seasons now. Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy in 2017-18 and, slow (for him) start to this season notwithstanding, has clearly been one of the best players across the entire league since the start of that season. Nico Hischier, meanwhile, has played the majority of the past two seasons as a teenager in the best league in the world. In spite of that fact, Hischier has been one of the most effective and valuable players in the NHL over that time frame, rating 21st in total GAR over his first two seasons in the league.
Over the previous two seasons there was basically one thing that consistently worked for the New Jersey Devils when it was deployed: the line of Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall. The duo got paired up early in the 2017-18 season and, when both have been healthy, they have spent a vast majority of their time on the ice together since then. It’s been easy to see why that is the case. On Devils teams that otherwise were somewhere between mediocre and bad, Hall and Hischier were a line that John Hynes could put out and immediately get results. When in doubt, put the top line out there to the extent possible and hope everyone else doesn’t screw it up too much.
The numbers from Natural Stat Trick paint the picture of the allure of this line quite clearly. In the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, in games where both players were healthy here are the goal differential numbers at 5v5:
- With both Hall and Hischier on the ice: +25
- All other situations: -70
The shot and xGF numbers paint a similar, if less stark, picture. Basically, when Hynes could get both Hall and Hischier on the ice the past two seasons, the Devils were a very good team, picking up 60% of the goals when they were on the ice. With neither on the ice, the Devils were horrendous, scoring less than 43% of the goals when Hall and Hischier weren’t out there. Again, you get why this has been the Devils go-to line since Hischier arrived in the league.
Here in 2019-20, though, it might be time for the Devils to move on from this arrangement for now. A Hall and Hischier line has been one of the few good things going for the Devils over the past couple seasons, but it probably behooves the Devils to look at splitting the duo up now to try and create multiple lines that can present matchup problems for teams. There are a few different reasons I think it makes sense to do this right now, so let’s run through them.
Hall-Hischier Isn’t Working Right Now
I don’t mean this in a broader, team sense. I mean that the actual Hall-Hischier line this year has been quite underwhelming. Beyond underwhelming, it’s actually just been kind of been bad overall. With both on the ice this year, the Devils are riding an xGF% of 37.1. For whatever reason, the Hall-Hischier duo is in a funk. That’s partially been skewed by couple bad games, including a notable one with Gusev against Philly, but even with the full Hall-Hischier-Palmieri line assembled, the Devils are running an xGF% below 50. Goes without saying that it’s not a good situation to have all three of your best forwards on a line that is not winning its matchups. I don’t have much doubt that, given time, this line would eventually round into form, but why not take this opportunity to try out some different things and spread the wealth with the rest of your lineup?
Hischier is All Grown Up(ish)
He’s obviously still very young at 20 years old, but Hischier is probably good enough and experienced enough to go it alone without Hall for a while at this point. He showed he can hold his own without Hall last season and now in his third year, he has matured and learned the ropes enough for other new or less-well-rounded players to start leaning on him. Nico likely being out of the crosshairs of other teams’ shutdown units if they stay matched up with Hall will also be a boon to him and the team.
In the somewhat limited but also not miniscule stretch that Nico has been away from Hall this season, the numbers have looked very good at 5v5. The Devils have about two-thirds of the expected goals (66.5%) with Hischier on the ice without Hall to this point. That’s only over about 50 minutes, but it seems like enough to see where things go with that arrangement.
Hall and Hughes were Starting to Click
Jack Hughes had a slow start to his season, but has been starting to find his way over the past several weeks. Not just because he has nine points in his past eight games (though that certainly doesn’t hurt), but because the underlying numbers have taken a sharp upward turn as well. Like Hischier two years ago, it seems that worries about whether Hughes can handle the physicality of the NHL at 18 may end up being unfounded. Sure Hughes may get pushed around from time to time, as Nico did, but he is so good that he’ll end up getting his, regardless.
With Hughes starting to find his footing and Hischier out briefly with an injury, the Devils gave line of Hall-Hughes-Palmieri a shot, and the results were starting to look pretty good by Saturday’s game against the Hurricanes. In a little over 50 minutes together, that line is looking at a 65% expected goals share. Again not a massive sample, but also enough success to give good reason to keep that group together. Put that together with Hischier’s success away from Hall so far and it seems like a configuration worth trying out. Few wingers in the league can carry a line like Hall can when he’s going, and given how well the Hall-and-rookie connection worked out two years ago, I see no reason not to go back to that well if it’s working.
The Devils Need Better Matchups
The Devils have had far too much time wasted on the ice this year where they have either a nominal third line unit getting caved in or a grind-it-out fourth line that can’t generate much of any offense on the ice. If the Devils split Hall and Hischier, they can potentially create two dangerous scoring units and start forcing teams to make some tough decisions about who they are going to try to shut down. If they can get those two lines going, it also gives the Travis Zajac line, which seems to be trying to do a bit too much right now (both Zajac and Blake Coleman are without a point in their last seven games) a little more space to operate as intended.
In the current configuration, if the Hall-Hischier line isn’t going (as it wasn’t last night), the Devils really have little else to fall back on. Hughes has shown he is an NHLer and a very dangerous one, but he can’t be expected to carry a line right now, particularly one with a player struggling to find solid footing like Nikita Gusev. And while Pavel Zacha has seeminly made strides so far this season, I also have limited confidence that he can carry a line either. Letting Hall and Hischier each serve as an engine for their own line should provide the cover necessary for some of the new players who may need it while spreading out the more threatening components of the Devils’ forwards group.
After the thrashing the team received in Calgary last night, tonight seems like a good opportunity to switch back to the separate Hall and Hischier lines against the NHL’s ultimate one-line team in Edmonton. We’ll see if that’s the direction the Devils go.